In Pittsburgh, I ride down Ohio River Boulevard in the back seat of my aunt's car, trying to ignore the chatter of Stella Jane and Anna. "Aren't the factories beautiful?" exclaims my grandmother as orange black gray smoke belches out of the steel mill stacks and disperses against a cobalt sky.
Anna turns right on their favorite country road, driving slowly past elegant Victorian mansions in elite Sewickley, gabled houses in pastel paints, so big they could be boarding schools. "Look at the property!" says Stella Jane."If you got hard up for money while you were living there, you could save yourself by selling half the lot."
"Norman should buy a house," Anna declares. "It's such a good investment. He could do it if he managed his money well."
"It wouldn't be so bad having him home again if he didn't bring that girl's clothes with him. They're everywhere. Under the his bed. In the cellar. They'll have moths. Moths in my house, in our things!" Stella Jane complains. "What's he doing with her?"
Anna and Stella Jane discuss the new/old morality. "It's better for guys," Anna observes. "They find some girl to keep house for them and wait on them like their mothers used to, and then kick the girl out whenever they want."
"Some women aren't playing that game," I venture. "Good for them," says Anna.
My grandmother tells me I'll be playing around with my life in New York when I'm 40, just like I am now.
Stella Jane: When are you going to marry, Susan? Settle down, get yourself a good man. Then you could buy a house and we could give you some of the things around here to make it purty!
Susan: There aren't any good men. And marriage is an institution of slavery.
Stella Jane: Not if you find the right man.
Susan: Like you did?
Stella Jane: Well, now, Frank was just….
Anna: You'll be too old to marry soon. (She married at age 39).
Susan: Don't worry about it.
Anna: She's too selfish to marry, Mom.
Susan: Actually, I might marry in about five years. There's just one person I'd marry, and that's Victor. You know who he is, don't you? Remember?
Anna: Ha! That's not going to be so good for you.
Susan: Oh, I don't know. Victor wants to marry me. We love each other very much. It's just not...well, it's not…
Susan (pleased): Yeah, that's it. You got it.
Stella Jane: Who's Victor?
Anna: You know, mom. He's the one that likes boys. He's the one she moved to New York with.
Stella Jane: Now what would she want to go marrying him for?
Anna: Who knows? She'll marry him and then he'll go off to see his boyfriends and Susie'll go to….(pause)...well, I don't know what Susie'll do.
Neither did I.
A phone call from Stella Jane.
"I might get to New York yet. Have to go see my friend Miss Lillie. She's just the nicest person. Sent me a fruitcake for Christmas. You tasted it, didn't you? We sent her some small things. Some nice hankies Anna had, a change purse and something else—Anna, what was it?—Oh yes, a pretty pink necklace. She didn't write to tell me she got it. I don't know, maybe she thought it was junk. Course I don't write myself. Can't spell the words. I got so I forget nearly everything these days. Have to leave blanks for the words I can't spell, and I almost have nothing wrote on the paper at all."
Yesterday, Anna, Stella Jane & I drove through the South Hills all the way to Library, PA, where I lived until I was 12, when we moved to Mt. Lebanon. The pharmacy was in the same place. Peter's Creek Baptist Church had grown into a complex, with a red, white and blue neon signboard on the corner, fitted with flashing arrows chasing the faithful to the church door. St. Joan of Arc Catholic School was still drilling the fear of the Lord into its politely petrified pupils; a notice on the front lawn announced registration for new students next Tuesday. No point in checking out the library, as the town never bothered to build one.
The Company Store for coal miners, a low yellow brick windowless building, situated itself in the middle of the empty parking lot like the remains of a meal on a dinner plate. The streetcar clacked through the center of the sleepy town, churning over the underpass just as we rumbled under it on our way up the hill to the old neighborhood.
Dormers have been added to most of the simple one-story Cape Cod-style wooden A-frames, including the house of my childhood, 164 Pleasant Street, which wasn't very. A great number of houses were up for sale.
"I'm so tired," said Stella Jane. "My leg hurts. My eye hurts. I have heart problems. It never stops. I might as well die and get it over with."
"Oh, Mom, don't be ridiculous," said Anna. "You can still rest and watch television and I take you to Kaufmann's or Denny's for lunch."
Later, I said to Anna, "So grandma seems to be forgetting more than she was the last time I was home."
"Oh yes. Sometimes we'll get in the car to go to Lizzie's. We'll be driving along and she'll ask where we're going three or four times. Her circulation's not good.
Not enough oxygen to the brain. She'll sit and cry that she can't remember like she used to, but I tell her it's not important. I never could remember anything much. What's to remember except to get up, to eat, to sleep, and maybe the way home. If you can't remember that, you just stay home."
My aunt can't remember to feel and my grandmother can't remember to live. You have to lower your expectations.
I visit Pittsburgh after a seven-month absence. Stella Jane is looking her 86 years. She tires easily and has lost her strength. Her eyes have recessed further into her head, her skin is mottled, and I cannot see any eyelashes. She still looks round, standing at 4'10" and weighing 135, but she doesn't fill her skin. She wears her flesh a couple of sizes too big.
We are driving to the shopping center, as usual, my aunt at the wheel, my grandmother beside her, and I moodily watching the summer sun dust the air out of the back seat window. My grandmother suddenly starts crying, softly.
"Anna," she says. "Who is that in the back seat?"
"That's Susie, Mom," said Anna. "Your granddaughter. Frances' child." It was the gentlest I'd ever heard my Aunt sound.
Yes, Stella Jane, daughter of your daughter, the dead one, the good one, the one who went to heaven because we willed it, she willed it, Mary Frances, my mother, who neither of us can remember because I have been alive again as long as I knew her, because you have been alive long enough for death to become so familiar it loses its bite, and your dead are just misplaced like last year's Christmas presents or the quilt you swear you stored in that specific attic storage bag, or the jar of peach preserves you missed when you went to the cellar to count your stock of put-up foods one winter morning.
A telephone call.
"Hi, grandma, how are you?"
"Fit as a fiddle and ready for love."
"Still hanging in there, huh?" Did I say that?
"The Lord don't want me and the devil ain't ready for me."
"I must say I agree with their decisions."
"I don't have much to talk about. My mind can't hold anything. Watch yourself in New York. I been thinking of coming there to visit. Oh, I got another friend there, in Yonkers. That's Miss Lillie. But I guess I aint gonna get there anytime soon. You behave and don't do anything I wouldn't do."
My dearest grandmother weakens but is still up and about and she and my aunt go driving through country roads past the isolated estates of the Pittsburgh elite at 30 miles per hour, towards shopping malls where they lunch in department store resturaunts without leaving tips. Sometimes Stella Jane steals the silverware, wrapping it in her napkin and slipping it in her beige leather purse, where my aunt discovers it later. Anna buys me underwear and feeds my grandmother too many pills and in between my grandmother's words gapes at the chasm of her approaching death. What will she do without her mother, her constant companion, her fellow traveler, her argument with herself?